How to write a user's guide without users?

Subject: How to write a user's guide without users?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 2 Mar 2000 09:32:09 -0500

Anonymous, who seems to have more problems than the average bear, reports
that <<I have written a rough draft of a user's guide for small start-up
company... which was "supposed to be" using the software internally.
However, of course, it hasn't really been used on a steady basis... The
software is now being targeted to an outside audience, though I have no
idea who the intended is to be. How does on write a user's guide without

First, whether or not the software has been used "on a steady basis", at
least it's been used. Find out by whom, and what their experience has been,
because they are _real_ users of the product. Second, someone (perhaps in
management) has obviously made the decision to target the outside audience,
and you can ask them to describe that audience for you. There's no really
good way to write for a completely unknown audience, though you can fake it.

That being said, good, clear writing works for any audience, even if it's
not perfectly tailored to them. Figure out what the software is supposed to
do and how, then structure your documentation to support that goal (or those
goals). Test the documentation to confirm that it really does let users
reach the specified goals, then sit back and cross your fingers. And while
you're sitting there like this <x x>, start talking to the people who
distribute your software about how you can get in touch with the people who
are now receiving it. Build some connections with that audience, and use
them to guide your approach to the next documentation release.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Hofstadter's Law: The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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